The longest navigable river in New Zealand is the site of an outstanding canoe trip through the wilderness of the Whanganui National Park. Although it is a canoe trip, DOC classifies the Whanganui River Journey (145km; 3–5 days) as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks – it’s the walk you do sitting down.
The River Journey offers a lot more experiences than your regular hiking trail. You get to sit down and paddle down-river for five days (although there is a shorter three-day alternative), during this time you pass 249 named rapids (mostly grades one and two), paddle under the famous Bridge to Nowhere and you have the chance to experience Māori culture at the Tieke Kāinga marae.
Because it is a canoe trip it requires a bit more organisation than your average hike. You have the option of taking a guided canoe trip or hiring the canoes and finding your own way down river. You can hire either a kayak or Canadian canoe; many people prefer the open canoes, as they are more convenient for carrying camping gear.
If you’re making the journey in the Great Walks season (Oct–Apr), huts cost $32 per night and camping is $20 per night; outside the Great Walks season huts cost $15 per night and campsites are free (except for Ohinepane and Whakahoro campsites, which cost $10 per night). A cheaper option, particularly if you’re doing several walks, is the Backcountry Hut Pass which costs $92 for six months or $122 for 12 months. You can buy hut tickets and the Backcountry Hut Pass from DOC Visitor Centres.
The River Journey starts at Cherry Grove near Taumaruni and finishes at Pipiriki, 68km north of Wanganui, and usually takes five days. There are only three huts along the route so you’ll need to bring along a tent to camp the first night. The following description of the River Journey is broken into the four sections between the huts, however the first section is rather long and most people break it into two (making it a five day journey). The Guide to the Whanganui River, available from DOC offices, describes the journey in more detail.
Cherry Grove to Whakahoro Hut (57km)
Most of the rapids occur in the first part of the journey between Cherry Grove and Whakahoro Hut (57km), which most people take two days to complete.
There are three camping options on this stretch of the journey, these are Ohinepane, Poukaria and Maharanui – most people camp at either Ohinepane or Poukaria.
During the second day you’ll pass the Niu Poles, where warriors would worship before battle.
Whakahoro Hut to John Coull Hut (37.5km)
During second part of the journey the river becomes a little calmer as you pass prominent cliffs. There is a small cave with glow worms located across the river from the Ohauora campsite, about two thirds of the way to John Coull Hut.
John Coull Hut to Tieke Kāinga (29km)
At Mangapurua, 19km from John Coull Hut, you can make a short detour up the Mangapurua Stream to the famous Bridge to Nowhere. This concrete bridge would otherwise be fairly ordinary if it wasn’t sitting in the middle of the wilderness. It was built shortly after World War I as an access route to new farming areas that were being developed at the time, however the project failed and the bridge now is just a rather surreal part of the Mangapurua Track.
Tieke Kāinga is the highlight of this section of the journey. Tieke was originally an old pā (fortified village), which has been revived as a marae (Māori meeting place). It is a unique opportunity to experience Māori culture as you get to participate in a powhiri (welcome ceremony). You will be met at the riverbank and the protocol of the powhiri will be explained to you before you enter the marae. It is customary to present a koha (gift) during the powhiri, this may be anything such as food or money.
Tieke Kainga to Pipiriki (21.5km)
The final leg of the journey has some of the biggest rapids and the wilderness gives way to farmland as you approach Pipiriki.
Gear Rental & Guided Trips
There are several companies that offer kayak and canoe rental; some of these companies also operate guided trips. These companies provide transport to and from the river. They include Yeti Tours.